Illustration by Allyssa Yohana.

Tea Leigh is a tattoo artist based in Brooklyn, New York who is known for their intricate hand-poked tattoos. Tea began tattooing as a hobby, doing home tattoos for friends here and there. They had their sights set on becoming a professional musician when they noticed that hand-poked tattoos were gaining popularity, and they decided to capitalize on it. Four years later, they now have more requests than they can handle, with their appointment book open only every three months and over one hundred thousand followers on Instagram.

I met Tea at Welcome Home, their brand new studio which they’ve opened with fellow hand-poke artist Kelli Kikcio. We discussed their path to professional tattooing, how tattoos help people make their bodies their homes, and the challenges in creating a work-life balance.

SHRIYA SAMAVAI: What were you like in high school? Were you always drawing and threatening your parents that you were going to get tattoos?

TEA LEIGH: I was always drawing, I’ve been a shitty illustrator for as long as I can remember and it’s only been in the past five or six years that I’ve refined myself. Or maybe not a shitty illustrator, but a charming doodler. I always wanted to get a tattoo—I got one the day I turned 18. I’m from the South, and my parents were not open to tattoos whatsoever. They were quite pissed when I came home with my best friend’s name tattooed behind my ear. When I was younger, it never occurred to me that I would be a full-time artist or a professional tattooer. I thought maybe I’d become a gallery artist—I went to art school and I thought I’d make multi-million dollars with my art!

I read online that you initially were pursuing music, not tattooing. What has your path been like up to this point?

At one point I thought I was going to be a full blown, full-time musician. At the time I really needed money, and I realized that music wasn’t lucrative enough. I was actually never searching to be a tattooer. A lot of people set out and get their apprenticeships and go that route, which is a necessary thing for a lot of people. The opportunity to tattoo knocked, and for creative people, you have to make that yes or no answer to something very quickly. There’s no thinking on it, there’s acting only. I wanted to do music and tattooing and I was also a full-time nanny. I thought, “I can do it all!” Slowly but surely, tattooing crept over and now I have no time for music. Which is a blessing but also sucks! When I first started tattooing, it was my passion, my hobby, it was fun. It’s still really fun but it’s turning into something completely different now that it’s a job. I’m hoping to get back into music soon.

How did you find yourself at the point where you realized you could be tattooing full-time?

It was an organic process, this is something Kelli and I talk about. So many people ask us, “How do you get your business? Where do your followers come from?” It’s all from Instagram. I wish I had gotten a tattoo apprenticeship and had gone the traditional route. When I first started tattooing, I was tattooing my friends and I taught myself. I will say, however, that the most important thing is to be sterile and clean. A lot of magazines will write about hand-poked tattoos, like, “You can do this from home!” and I’m like, “Oh my god, don’t do that, you’re going to give everyone hepatitis.” Luckily, my mom is a nurse, and she gave me the guidelines I needed to follow in terms of sterilizing. I think without her I would have stumbled along a lot more slowly. So I started tattooing my friends—I did a lot of terrible tattoos, by the way, I’ve covered up so many of them! But then friends of friends started asking for tattoos as well. And when I first started I was doing tattoos for trade—so someone would buy me dinner for payment. And then I started charging $20 or $30, and now I’ve been tattooing for four years so my rate has increased. The reason why I thought I’d do it for a living is when I saw that tattooers were starting to take over Instagram. I hit that sweet spot, the crest of the wave. I was sitting right at the top and everyone was interested in stick and pokes all of a sudden. It seemed like a really good business opportunity and I wanted to do it to see where it would go.

My favorite part about tattooing is connecting with people. I love people and I thought, what a great job to have. To mark someone permanently, and it’s usually something quite meaningful to them. Or not, tattoos don’t have to be meaningful. But I get to have a conversation with them, get to know them, see who they are. I starting finding myself so attached to that process. And eventually, it got to the point where I could quit my nannying job.

So you were nannying along the way?

Yes, I was nannying for two years while I was tattooing. I was working 80 hour weeks—but that’s what you do when you have an apprenticeship too. I’m a very stubborn and proud person—if tattooing hadn’t worked out and I had to go back to nannying, I would’ve been devastated. So I had to make sure that this was something that I could do. I said yes to any press opportunity that came in. I was flying in the dark!

When you first switched to full-time were you nervous?

I was quite terrified. There’s no security in being your own boss. I felt free but I was terrified. I’ve always been a very scrappy and resourceful person. I never thought that would truly play to my advantage. But I think most business owners who don’t come from money are resourceful and that’s the core reason why they’re successful. They’ll do whatever it takes.

You open your books for appointments only a few times a year. What is that process like?

I open my books every three months. People apply—I have a form that people fill out that guides them through things like placement, size, availability, timing, etc. That goes into a spreadsheet and I comb through all of them. For a three month period I’ll take 300 requests, and then I’ll accept about half of those. So I leave it open until I get to about 300 so I have plenty to choose from. I put into a spreadsheet the ones I want to take, and then my assistant takes care of all the scheduling. This is the first time I’ve had an assistant do that and it is awesome. She schedules them and then I follow up a couple weeks before their date and do an email consultation. It’s not a difficult process but it is really time-consuming.

How do you choose who you want to work with?

It’s based off an idea or if they want something from my books. So most tattooers, if you say, I’ll pick something you already have drawn, you’re more likely to get in. I love doing custom stuff, but there’ll be times when I open my books and say, no custom this round. It’s an extra amount of work because you have to draw everything for every person, and you’re putting 8 to 10 hours into each tattoo but only tattooing for 1 to 2 hours. It’s a lot of prep work before the tattoo happens. This is why tattooers make the money they make. A lot of people think tattooers are elite, they make so much money. But when you break down how much we actually make an hour, it’s not a lot. It’s still a considerable amount of money but if an artist is $200 an hour, we’re actually $20 an hour because of all the other work we do. Emailing is work, social media is work. Going to get all my supplies every week is work. I have to pay for rent in the studio and everything that’s in here. That’s why you should always tip your tattooers!

You said you do about 150 tattoos per every three months, that’s about 600 tattoos a year. When do you take vacations? How do you know how to split your time between working and taking time off?

I think that’s the hardest part about being your own boss. Because all you want to do is have fun, but also all you want to do is work! There’s this constant pull. I don’t have an answer, I don’t quite have that balance. I work myself to the bone and then I’ll take a month off. And I love that! I’m an intense worker. Working this hard and getting everything done, vacations seem so much sweeter. But when you’re on vacation and you’re checking Instagram—that is work. Opening your email and seeing the number of unread emails—that is work too. Being your own boss is also learning about how to not always be working.

Tell me more about opening this studio space with Kelli.

Kelli and I met almost four years ago on Instagram, she also does hand-poked tattoos. About two years ago, she came to New York, and we traded tattoos. She came back a little while later and we hung out and were talking about tattooing and where we saw our careers going. I told her that I really wanted to open a multidisciplinary studio, and she said, “All I’ve ever wanted is a space where you can tattoo, but easily transform the space into anything you want it to be.” A year and a half later, it came true. This has organically been building and like I said, we’re riding that wave. I don’t know how long this is going to be here. I’m going to try and keep it alive as long as I can. This is a very unpredictable world and I’m not going to hold my breath.

So I made a list of places we could rent—there were spots that were attainable and others that were more on the dream side. This place was listed as a dream studio, we thought we could never afford it, but we thought we would go see it anyway. When Kelli and I walked into the space, we could totally envision everything. If you walk into a space and can’t instantaneously envision yourself there, turn your back and walk away. Don’t even second guess it. We saw a couple other places after we saw this one but kept thinking, “How do we afford the dream one? How do we do this?” We did a budget and wrote down the number of guests artists we’d have to host and workshops to hold and we figured we could make it work. We wrote out a business plan for ourselves. I’m more of the messy, creative right-sider, and Kelli is very creative but very organized. We both bring different skill sets to the forefront which is what makes our partnership so great.

We moved in, and right when we got in we decided on the name. It’s called Welcome Home. Kelli and I never felt that we had that traditional sense of home, that feeling of home. And I talk about how that feeling travels with you a lot. As tattooers, we mark people’s bodies, we mark vessels, and a lot of times that vessel is the only thing that people can consider home. I’m from Texas, so being hospitable and feeling comfortable in a space is really important to me. So we decided on Welcome Home in the sense of, welcome to your body. You’re creating the vessel you want to be in. And also the workshops we’re going to do, we want to help strengthen your foundation of home, whether that’s spiritual, mental, physical, whichever type of home you carry with you. We want to create workshops where people feel good and leave feeling like they gained something.

Do you have any advice for young people who want to start their own business?

Do it. You’ll never be successful if you don’t take risks. It’s not possible. Something l like to say that my tarot mentor Lindsey Mack told me is, “You can be afraid, but you have to be willing.” Ever since I heard her say that, it completely opened me up as a person. Because I realized I was constantly living in fear and it would paralyze me. You can be afraid, but you have to be willing. You have to be willing to take those chances. ♦